The September Massacres

Summary

The September Massacres of 1792 were a series of brutal killings which murdered approximately half the prison population of Paris. The slaughter lasted from 2 September 1792 to 6 September 1792 and had a significant impact on the French Revolution. Historians debate whether or not the killings were spontaneous, although they are generally considered to be triggered by a combination of rumors and panic. Although labeled as traitors, the victims were largely ordinary criminals. The prison massacres in Paris inspired similar violence in the departments of revolutionary France. 

Background

Prior to the September Massacres, the French Revolution was already fixated on hidden plots and conspiracies. Leading political factions (including Girondins, Jacobins, and Feulliants prior to the fall of the monarchy) often denounced foreign plots and counter-revolutionary schemes. Military failures since April 1792, along with increasing economic hardship and grain shortages, further perpetuated the belief in conspiracies throughout the summer of 1792. 

After the overthrow of the monarchy on 10 August 1792, the new Paris Commune instigated a series of repressive measures that some historians label ‘the First Terror’. These measures included suppression of the free press, the forced closure of royalist political societies, and the mass arrests of various suspects. These suspects included swiss guards, priests, former aristocrats, and those who had previously served as deputies or public servants in the previous regime. The arrests were so plentiful that popular opinion believed the prisons to be severely overcrowded. In reality, many arrested during the First Terror were released, with perhaps only a few hundred being detained in prison over the course of August 1792.

With the prison population increasing due to the arrest of ‘traitors’, the revolutionary cohorts of Paris demanded the trial and execution of individuals they considered to be enemies of the people. However, the new Revolutionary Tribunal established on 17th August had proven disappointingly slow. The slow nature of the tribunal angered some revolutionaries, who perceived the body (and by association, the government) to be corrupt. The lack of executions worried others, given the nature of some prison rumors which claimed the prisoners were collaborating with the Prussian enemy. It was increasingly argued by some in the revolutionary press that the people should take extraordinary measures to ensure the threat was eliminated. 

“The people have two ways only open to them. The first is to bring the traitors held in the Abbaye prison to judgment, to surround the courts and the Assembly, and, if the accused are absolved, to massacre them without more ado, together with the new tribunal and the scoundrels who passed the fraudulent decree of August 17th. The other way is safer and more wise; it is to go armed to the Abbaye, drag out the traitors, in particular the Swiss officers and their accomplices, and put them to the sword. What madness to bring them to trial! The trial has already taken place! You have seized them with arms in their hands, in the act of fighting against the nation; you have killed the rank and file; why do you spare the officers, who are incomparably more guilty? It was a stupid blunder to listen to those who advised making them prisoners of war. They are traitors, who should have been done away with on the spot.”

– Jean-Paul Marat, August 1792

Prison Rumours

Since the start of the revolution, prison rumors had been a common occurrence amongst the people of Paris. The prisons were perceived to be overcrowded, poorly resourced, and staffed by corrupt individuals. As early as 1789, it was widely whispered that the prisons were full of criminals who intended to reverse the revolution. As a result, fears of prison breaks became common, with these fears often heightened as the revolution experienced phases of extreme uncertainty or unrest.

As the First Terror arrested priests, nobles, swiss guards, and other individuals perceived to be enemies of the revolution, the prison rumors of previous years were given new life. In August and September 1792, it became commonly believed that prisoners were being paid by agents of the counter-revolution and were working in league with the Prussian Army. Many Parisians feared that the prisoners would attack the capital in coordination with the Prussian invasion, exposing the revolution to a deadly attack from behind. 

Critically, the rumors associated with these prison plots were believed by many in Paris, across various social and political groups. This common belief helps to explain how a small number of assailants could continue to perpetuate the massacres for nearly a week. Put simply, the murders enjoyed the implicit support of many. Likewise, it is argued by some historians that the killings were implicitly supported by members of the government, who also believed in the rumors. 

“…in the emotion of the moment, a broad cross-section of Parisian citizenry of diverse factions and political persuasions was convinced by the rumors of an impending prison breakout, and that they accepted the killings as either a positive good or an unfortunate necessity.”

– Historian Timothy Tackett

The Trigger of the September Massacres

On 25 July 1792, the Duke of Brunswick, commander of the coalition’s forces, issued the controversial Brunswick Manifesto. The document promised to “inflict an ever memorable vengeance by delivering over the city of Paris to military execution and complete destruction” if the French royal family was harmed. On the 10th of August, the people of Paris forcibly removed the King from power in a second revolution. It was widely believed that the Prussians would enact a terrible vengeance if they successfully took the capital. 

On the 19th of August 1792, the Prussian Army invaded France. Almost immediately the border fortress of Longwy capitulated, triggering alarm in Paris. Days later, the Prussians besieged the mighty fortress of Verdun. On the 2 September, news reached Paris of Verdun’s imminent capitulation, and rumors circulated that the strategic stronghold had already fallen. Fear and anxiety consumed Paris, and leading Girondin politicians even discussed retreat from the capital. 

“… the streets reverberated with a mixture of fear and panic.”

– Historian Charles J. Esdaile, on the fall of Longwy and Verdun

“After the fall of Longwy, the ministers met to listen to Kersaint, one of the deputies dispatched to see the armies, who predicted that Brunswick would be in Paris within two weeks. The Girondin ministers panicked. Roland declared that the government should leave for Tours or Blois, taking the treasury and the king with it.”

– Historian Eric Hazan

The news of Verdun’s impending collapse prompted immediate responses from both the authorities and the populace. In the Legislative Assembly, the Minister of Justice Georges Danton demanded radical measures to save the nation. Specifically, he called for the death of those who would not defend the nation. Some of the more radical sections of Paris agreed and explicitly pushed for the execution of prisoners. In their minds, the prisoners represented an existential threat that had to be eliminated before the Prussian army arrived. 

“We ask that anyone refusing to give personal service or to furnish arms shall be punished with death.”

– Georges Danton, 2 September 1792

“The Poissonnière Section passed a resolution to the effect that all priests and other suspected persons held in the prisons of Paris, Orleans and elsewhere, should be put to death, and that the wives and children of the emigres and all those guilty of anti-patriotic sentiments should be forced to march before the front rank of volunteers to protect the brave sans-culottes from enemy fire. The Luxembourg Section decreed that ‘before the volunteers’ departure the prisons should be purged by the blood of the political prisoners of Paris’.”

– Historian Gaetano Salvemini

Thus, the September Massacres were caused by a combination of fear and hysteria arising from both prison rumors and the rapid success of the advancing Prussian army. 

The September Massacres Commence

The bloodshed started on the afternoon of 2 September 1792. A group of refractory priests who had been arrested during the First Terror was being relocated to a prison called the Abbaye. In six carts, the prisoners were set upon by a mob at their destination. The crowd proceeded to drag the priests out of their carts and dispatch them. Far from protecting the men they were meant to be guarding, some fédérés and National Guardsmen joined in.  It was asserted that the perpetrators were protecting the revolution, as the priests would have endangered the defenseless women and children of Paris once the fighting men had departed to fight the Prussians. 

The assailants soon turned to the Carmelite convent. The convent had been used as a facility to detain as many as 200 refractory priests and was thus a prime target for those seeking to kill the city’s prisoners.  Despite trying to hide from their attackers, many priests were slaughtered, including the Archbishop of Arles. During the killings, news arrived, from an unknown source, that the prisoners should be tried by improvised tribunals rather than indiscriminately slaughtered.

The Victims of the September Massacres

The victims of the September Massacres were primarily common criminals. Historian George Lefebvre claims that only a small subset of the victims were priests or other political prisoners. Amongst those who were certainly not guilty of treason were the thirty-five women massacred in the Salpêtrière. Likewise, thirty or so juvenile detainees were killed, with no links whatsoever to the counter-revolution. 

“[The death toll was] somewhere between 1,090 and 1,395, about half the total number of prisoners. There were 223 priests and other ‘political’ victims, accounting for no more than one-fourth of those killed; the rest were common criminals.”

– Historian George Lefebvre

The Perpetrators

Historians have long debated the exact identity of those who conducted the September Massacres. It is generally accepted that the assailants consisted primarily of members of the National Gaurd, provincial fédérés, and Parisian sans-culottes.

The number of assailants is unknown. Most sources agree that the number is relatively small, perhaps around 300 individuals. 

Who was to blame?

The September Massacres were and remain a highly controversial affair. Historians do not agree on which individuals, factions, and institutions deserve to be held accountable for the killings. While some point to the firey and violent rhetoric of key revolutionary leaders such as Marat and Danton, others denounce the complicity of the Commune. At the heart of this debate is the issue of whether or not the killings can be attributed to the actions of one man (or a small group of men), or whether they were a popular and spontaneous movement that cannot be explained by the actions of a few individuals.

Quick Answers for Students

Definition of the September Massacres

The September Massacres were a series of brutal killings which murdered approximately half the prison population of Paris in September 1792. 

What caused the September Massacres?

The September Massacres were caused by a combination of fear and hysteria arising from both prison rumors and the rapid advance of the Prussian army. 

When was the September Massacres?

2 September 1792 – 6 September 1792. Similar killings continued sporadically outside the capital for weeks. 

What was the death toll of the September Massacres?

Approximately 1,200 were killed, although credible estimates range from 1,100 to 1,600. 

Who were the victims?

The vast majority of those killed were common criminals with no revolutionary or counter-revolutionary associations. Historians George Lefebvre estimates that less than a quarter of the victims were political prisoners (e.g. priests, former nobles, etc.). 

Who committed the September Massacres?

National Gaurd, provincial fédérés, and Parisian sans-culottes. While the number of assailants is unknown, most sources estimate it was around 300 individuals or less. 

Who was blamed for the September Massacres?

Some historians and contemporaries blame Marat and/or Danton for the killings, citing their violent rhetoric as a key justification. Others dispute this and reject the idea that any one individual could have inspired what they perceive to be a genuinely spontaneous and popular act. Some scholars place blame on the Paris Commune, in part due to its relative inaction as well the prominence of some officials at the prisons. 

What was the impact of the Massacres?

The massacres dominated the first months of the Convention, accelerating the tensions between the Girondins and the Montagnards. The killings also paved the way for the Reign of Terror by legitimizing violence as a means to defend the revolution and ensure justice was dealt to the people’s enemies. Finally, as the Girondins were disgusted by the bloodshed, the September Massacres helped to severe the political associations between the Girondin faction and the Parisian sans-culottes. 

Additional Resources

The following podcast episodes cover the September Massacres in great detail:
1.39 The September Massacres Part I (The events themselves)

1.40 The September Massacres Part II (Who is to blame)

1.41 The September Massacres Part II (Consequences of the killings)

‘Grey History: The French Revoluton’ is available for free on all major podcast platforms and Spotify.

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